I've just been reading Helen Buckland's interesting blog post on the power of flagship species. Who decides which species are going to be flagship ones?
If you had to pick one of your own, what would it be, and why?
It is a good question.
I suppose each country has to decide which species represent it best. In that sense I think flagship species should be, whenever possible, endemic and threatened species like the Kiwi in New Zealand.
As I live in Chile and am particularly concerned with the habitat fragmentation on the coast, I would choose the Marine Otter or Lontra felina.
In spite of the reduction of its habitat and the stresses to which it is exposed by human communities, this little animal offers a wonderful display of sweet confidence and playfulness to the lucky observer.
There is no definitive list of flagship species - conservationists choose species which represent an ecosystem or an issue, but there is no officially agreed list of criteria to define flagship species. For example, the polar bear is often thought of as representing the issue of climate change, but charismatic animals living in tropical rainforests could also be candidates too, as we learn more about the crucial role they play in maintaining forests, and the importance of forests as carbon sinks. Organisations use the concept of flagship spcies in many different ways - for example, to draw attention to a particular area, or to appeal to the public for support. To find out more about how the Sumatran Orangutan Society uses the orangutan as an ambassador for the forests of Sumatra, visit http://www.orangutans-sos.org/projects/
WWF give a list of their flagship species and the definition "Iconic animals that provide a focus for raising awareness and stimulating action and funding for broader conservation efforts" - all large mammals in this particular case, with the addition of marine turtles. The broader conservation efforts are important: the flagship species draws the attention and commitment of the public, but the outcome is conservation of wider ecosystems and much wider ranges of species.
Flora and Fauna International have run a flagship species fund with a different approach - flagship species in a particular context, quite a number of endemics and an emphasis on trees and primates, some turtles and birds.
It's effective - you can see this in the history of UK conservation with Avocet and Osprey for the RSPB, for example. But again - habitat and landscape have always been part of the thinking, not only the species itself.
There will be ecosystems where there is no species that is naturally "iconic" in the sense of being immediately attractive to a broad public. Again, on the same WWF page there is a list of footprint-impacted species, vulnerable in different ways to human activity - quite a number of fish and trees.
The emphasis on species is important in policy and action, and extends beyond the iconic to less attractive species in the form of the various UK Biodiversity Action Plans for particular species - but these are complemented by action plans for habitats as well. The IUCN red lists and CITES focus action and attention on particular species.
Conservation experts are able to say more about the pros and cons. The advantages seem clear, but it is important that success is not seen as a matter only of the survival of the flagship species - organisations taking this approach now are very clear that the flagship species must be seen as part of a wider ecosystem and that this is about the survival of viable populations, taking account of the human context.